ISIS is truly winning. It’s that simple. And unless we change our approach, it will continue to take more land, grow in recruits, and slaughter more people, especially Muslims, on a daily basis.
That’s not just my sentiment, but also the view of Laith Alkhouri, a NBC News counterterrorism expert and director of research and analysis for the Middle East at Flashpoint. As Alkhouri noted on my SiriusXM radio show this past Saturday, if you think ISIS is just a run-of-the-mill terrorist group that can be lumped in with al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, etc., then you have no idea what’s going on.
“ISIS is not a terrorist group; it’s a terrorist army that is building a nation,” Alkhouri explained, adding, “They have intelligence units, surveillance drones, a secret service, and they even provide social services.”
In fact, in the most recent issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq released last week, the group boasted about its health-care plan (Insert your own Obamacare jokes): “The Islamic State provides Muslims with extensive health care by running a host of medical facilities including hospitals and clinics in all major cities through which it is offering a wide range of medical services.”
The ISIS magazine features a glossy photo of a state-of-the-art hospital and details the medical services the group has recently provided for people in the areas it controls, such as 6,711 patients receiving outpatient care, 442 kidney-dialysis sessions, 400 ultrasound scans, etc. ISIS even brags about starting a new medical school in Iraq that men and women can attend. ISIS is clearly planning for its survival, not for martyrdom.
In September, I wrote about how I, as a Muslim, was very concerned that ISIS’s sales pitch could be effective at recruiting disenfranchised Muslims. ISIS was not saying “Come join us to die.” Rather, ISIS was saying “Come join us to live. Forget the world where you’re a slave to making money or where you’re not valued; instead, join us, where you can be something special and also be spiritually fulfilled.”
At that time of the article, ISIS had recruited fighters from a handful of countries and totaled about 30,000 supporters in Iraq and Syria. Flash-forward eight months later and, as Alkhouri noted, ISIS has recruits from over 80 countries. Last month, it captured the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria and controls close to 50 percent of both countries. And thanks to other terrorist groups pledging their loyalty, ISIS now numbers 100,000 to 150,000 adherents, with additional branches in Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. (Some of these countries have very small pockets of supporters.)
And ISIS is also winning on social media. Another guest on my radio show Saturday, Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American leader, spoke of a social media campaign she spearheaded last week to mock ISIS using the hashtag #MoreIslamicthanISIS. The tweets included a picture of a cat wearing a keffiyeh (a traditional Arab headdress worn by men) and other images ridiculing ISIS. The response from ISIS supporters on Twitter was fierce, with Sarsour and others receiving threats. A few months ago we didn’t see ISIS followers on Twitter openly attacking people who mocked the terrorist group.
And apart this anecdote, at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that I attended two months ago, it was made clear that ISIS is far surpassing our efforts in the use of social media.
So how do we defeat ISIS? You want the honest answer or the one that politicians will tell you? Look, it’s possible to defeat ISIS, but it will take a concerted, unified, and well-planned long-term effort. And so far we aren’t winning this multi-faceted war on any front.
As Alkhouri noted, “We are lacking a long-term approach to counter ISIS on all fronts.” And when he says “all fronts,” he means from militarily to countering their recruiting efforts on social media to their peer-to-peer recruiting to their propaganda efforts.
People like John McCain and Lindsey Graham tell us the solution to ISIS is 10,000 or so U.S. troops on the ground. But Alkhouri makes a point we don’t hear from the politicians who advocate putting U.S. troops on the ground: Which ground do they mean? ISIS is now in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. And ISIS, per Alkhouri, is likely at 50,000 seasoned fighters. How exactly are 10,000 troops going to defeat ISIS, which is now spread out over numerous countries?
I’m fairly certain that Graham, McCain, and others on the right know that. Perhaps this is their strategy to induce us to commit some troops knowing it will require a massive number to ultimately defeat ISIS. But Alkhouri strongly advises against the United States being the leader on the ground. “We need to have the nations where ISIS is operating lead that fight with our help, together with a global coalition that counters ISIS on every facet.”
As much as it pains me, I do agree we need troops on the ground—a multilateral coalition, but yes, including U.S. troops—if we are going to defeat ISIS. And I say this as someone who was 100 percent opposed to the Iraq War. (And as someone who believes there still needs to be a criminal investigation into whether members of the Bush administration lied to us about the WMDs.)
But a military component clearly needs to be part of the strategy we employ, as Alkhouri so aptly explained (though not the whole strategy). My reasoning for supporting a larger military approach, however, is not some jingoistic “We need our enemies to fear us” bullshit.” Rather I say it because the people on the ground, both the Christians and Muslims being brutally murdered by ISIS, desperately need help.
ISIS may have been created by Bush’s war in Iraq, but it’s growing strength is due to the lack of a coherent policy. The question is how many more innocent people need to die before there’s truly a global coalition to stop ISIS?